/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on May 10, 2010 at 12:08 pm
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Magnificent maps!

The blockbuster exhibitions at our major museums get a lot of press – and they’re always thronged. But sometimes, it’s the free exhibitions that really impress – and there’s a great one on at the moment, one I’m particularly interested in as it’s all about maps.

Presumably this little fellow on the Hereford Mappa Mundi is an inhabitant of France?

We take maps for granted, rather. But we shouldn’t. Behind every map there ae a whole load of assumptions; assumptions about what’s important (place names? contour lines? the presence of a pub? roads?) and whose land it is anyway (Welsh or English place names?). Assumptions about how we ought to represent what’s there – and what the image should look like; a living, dynamic earth? or a static, regulated one?

Magnificent maps‘ at the British Library presents a collection of large format display maps. These are not maps for everyday use – like a navigator’s chart or the London A to Z you keep in the car; they are maps as works of art, as scientific instruments for defining and investigating our world. Biggest of all is the Klencke Atlas – it’s actually taller than I am. How on earth the bookbinder managed to sew it together I can’t imagine!

The medieval maps are also stunning, mingling pictures andmythological symbols with mapping in an inaccurate but persuasive view of the world. This is the world of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville – full of marvels and wonders. Fast forward a couple of centuries and you find a much more accurate, but equally pictorial view of Venice provided by Jacopo de Barbari – five feet in length and incredibly detailed. I’ve been told you can count every window pane in the Palazzo Danieli! The sheer impact of this massive map is amazing – and that’s before your eye gets lost in the compacted detail of Venice’s twisting alleys and wriggling canals.

Some of the maps represent moments that changed our understanding of the world we live in, like the Fra Mauro map of 1450.  For the first time, Portuguese discoveries in Africa are shown – challenging the view of the world that came down from Classical times in the light of new evidence. In its way, it’s just as revolutionary as Colombus’ discovery of America later that century. (The map in the exhbition is actually a remarkably faithful 19th century copy.)

Diego Homen’s map of the Mediterranean is a beautiful piece – coloured and gold inks on vellum. Most striking are the multiple compass roses scattered all over it like rose petals. It’s absolutely gorgeous – though not perhaps all that accurate (the British Isles seem to have been squashed).

There’s a copy of the destroyed Ebstorf mappa mundi of about 1300, which shows the world in religious imagery – the whole globe represents the crucified Christ, his face at the top, his hands and feet protruding at the edges of the world-disk. It’s as fantastic, in a way, as Terry Pratchett’s discworld borne on the back of flying turtles – but that really was the way the Middle Ages thought of the world; a world in which God was actually, not just symbolically, present, and in which Eden can still be seen, together with the modern world, conflating time into a single eternal map.

Some maps are highly politicised – there are maps as backgrounds to a Communist poster (“Be on your guard!”), maps as political cartoons, satirical maps, maps on which the octopuses of foreign aggressors spread their inky tentacles. The map has stopped being a scientific instrument and become a work of propaganda, or of humour. Or, as in the ‘tea map’ of the world, a piece of commercial advertising – the world as marketplace or commodity supplier.

There are even new maps. Stephen Walter has created a map of London called ‘The Island’ which represents the modern city of London in terms of its atmosphere, its strange histories and local cultures – it includes his own autobiography, where he was brought up, where he’s walked, personal signs and symbols, personal experiences. It looks like a John Roche map from the eighteenth century – but it’s not an arm’s length, scientific, surveyor’s view of London – it’s deeply idiosyncratic, subjective, personal. Is it a spoof? I think it’s a bit more… it’s a guide to life in London; where to avoid after dark, where to get a drink, even where to score some hash – and even the ‘Ron Davies‘ spot on Clapham Common.

I just adored this map. You could, I suppose, use it to navigate from A to B. But it does so very much more; it’s a map of our times as well as our city. If you can’t get to the exhibition, it can be perused online, and it’s a fantastic work – full of odd things I didn’t know. It even shows which side of the class divide certain neighbourhoods fall – a great corrective to the estate agents’ view of London!

Granted, a collection of maps doesn’t have the crowd-pleasing appeal of Tutankhamun’s tomb or the Aztecs. But this is a really fascinating exhibition – not only is the subject philosophically interesting, but some of these maps are the most stunning works of art it’s possible to imagine. For me, this is one of the must-sees of the London museum world this summer.

Where: British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB [map]

When: 0930-1800 all week, 0930-1700 Saturdays and 1100-1700 Sundays (open till 2200 on Tuesday) – till September 19 2010

Photo by Gianni on flickr

Related places:
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    The British Library
    96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book

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